Aug 5, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Inside a Kamala Harris crisis dinner

Vice President Harris boards Air Force Two in Mexico City in June. Photo: Hector Vivas/Getty Images

A group of the Democratic Party's most influential women met for dinner at a home in the nation’s capital last month to game out how to defend Vice President Kamala Harris and her chief of staff, Tina Flournoy, against a torrent of bad press.

Why it matters: It's telling that so early in the Biden-Harris administration, such powerful operatives felt compelled to try to right the vice president's ship.

Details: The host was Kiki McLean, a Democratic public affairs expert and former adviser to both Clintons.

  • Her guests included Harris confidant Minyon Moore; two former DNC officials, Donna Brazile and Leah Daughtry; Biden adviser and leader of his outside group, Stephanie Cutter; former Hillary Clinton spokeswomen and Democratic strategists Adrienne Elrod and Karen Finney; and former Obama White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri.
  • Nobody from the vice president's office was at the dinner, but Harris is attuned to her outside network of supporters. Harris' office declined to comment on the dinner.

Behind the scenes: These were old friends getting together for the first time since the pandemic began, and celebrating a Democratic president after the Trump years. But the dinner had an urgent purpose. 

  • Harris had been hit with a series of damaging press accounts, with leaks from administration officials questioning her political judgment and describing rampant dysfunction in her office.
  • The operatives spent the dinner discussing how to fight back against negative perceptions, and how to help Harris boost her national media footing.

What they're saying: "The point of it was how can this group be supportive from the outside," said one person familiar with the dinner.

  • "It was less about how do you sort out the infrastructure [of Harris' operation], and it was more how can this group contribute to make sure that not only is her team making the most of this moment — as the first woman of color in the White House — but how can we help from the outside?"

The women discussed how they could leverage Harris' record as a prosecutor, California attorney general and U.S. senator to blunt criticisms of her performance as vice president, including her answers to questions about the border crisis.

  • Another source familiar with the dinner said attendees saw sexist overtones to the Harris coverage, and discussed how they could "make sure the press knows this."
  • "Many of us lived through the Clinton campaign, and want to help curb some of the gendered dynamics in press coverage that impacted HRC," this source said. "It was like: 'We’ve seen this before.' It’s subtle. But when things aren't going well for a male politician, we ask very different questions, and they’re not held to account the way a woman leader is.”

Flashback: The stories about Harris had gotten so bad by early July that White House chief of staff Ron Klain and others forcefully defended Harris, and declared full confidence in her abilities in statements to Axios.

  • Biden senior adviser Cedric Richmond even charged that there was "a whisper campaign designed to sabotage" the vice president.
  • As we wrote in that story, 2024 is the elephant in the room.
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